Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Testing Babies for Learning

According to yahoo news, babies (ages 0-2) don't in fact learn via apps.  In fact, to quote from the article:
"Everything we know about brain research and child development points away from using screens to educate babies," said Susan Linn, the group's director. "The research shows that machines and screen media are a really ineffective way of teaching a baby language. What babies need for healthy brain development is active play, hands-on creative play and face-to-face" interaction.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any electronic "screen time" for infants and toddlers under 2, while older children should be limited to one to two hours a day. It cites one study that found infant videos can delay language development, and warns that no studies have documented a benefit of early viewing.
What interests me in this is how do you test if a baby is learning anything from a screen.  While I admit I am reading into the article, the current research appears to be:
  1. Subject the baby to multiple hours of screen time per day*.
  2. Wait a few years to see if the baby does in fact learn anything.
* They might just be surveying parents, so then it is the parent who is doing it, but it amounts to the same thing.
So with that being said, lets look again at that article:
Linn's group alleges that the companies violate truth-in-advertising laws when they claim to "teach" babies skills. For example, Fisher-Price claims that its Laugh & Learn "Where's Puppy's Nose?" app can teach a baby about body parts and language, while its "Learning Letters Puppy" app educates babies on the alphabet and counting to 10. Open Solutions says its mobile apps offer a "new and innovative form of education" by allowing babies to "practice logic and motor skills."

"Given that there's no evidence that (mobile apps are) beneficial, and some evidence that it may actually be harmful, that's concerning," Linn said.
Granted I am still reading into the article, it appears that they are saying that parents who tend to use their apps aren't see any benefit.  The questions are:
  1. Is that due to parenting techniques (E.G. Parents ignoring the babies by giving them a electronic device)?
  2. Is that something the manufacturer saw, or where they watching the babies to see how they would respond?
  3. Are the producers of the system responsible for any lack of learning that a particular baby might experience if they can show that another baby found it useful?  This is particularly interesting as babies can't possibly known their own learning strategies nor could the parents.
Once you start looking at this, it sure seems like our ability to evaluate either side's claims is near impossible.  I'm not a legal scholar, so I haven't got the legal knowledge to judge the manufacturer's responsibility, but I do hope for their sakes (and the children's) they did in fact test the thing in some way shape or form.  Since I can't evaluate the claims this does leave me with one interesting exercise.  How would I test the claim?  As a software tester I don't often test children, so excuse any mistakes I might make.
  1. Look at typical cognitive values for that locale.  Compare that to the children who will likely get the device/app.  If there are differences, look into why.
  2. Look at the typical usage pattern of the children.  Are the children who use it frequently better able to hook the nose to the puppy?  How about those who use it less frequently?  How about those who don't use it at all?
  3. Are the more frequent users using it 8 hours one day and then skipping 5 days or are they using it 2 hours each day?  What happens when a baby is given the device to use for 8 hours 6 days a week?
  4. Of course we can't ignore device reliability.  Does the app die after 1 hour of play or does it work for hours?  Does the device die after 1 hour of play (due to batteries) or does it last for many hours?
  5. Are parents who give the devices present and engaged when the devices are being used by the babies?
Obviously there are plenty more questions I could come up with, but by looking at those factors one could say who this might be successful for if it would in fact be successful at all.  Next time you have an article that you are looking at, maybe you too can ask, how would I test that?


It appears that additional studies have been done on children with non-interactive mediums and have been shown to be consistently (as in multiple studies) found as problematic.  This does not mean digital/interactive devices suffer from the same issues, but I'm sure those studies are coming soon.


  1. At CAST I asked about how to practice critical thinking skills and one suggestion was to read an article and look for the bias.
    I think this post is a great example of what I could be doing to practice - find an article and take it apart and think about how you would approach it. Thanks for a great example

  2. I think there are multiple ways of considering it and multiple ways to learn:
    1. Testing something that has been reported broken in an article.
    2. Debating an article.
    3. Look for the biased terms with an article (particularly the news).
    4. Look for what questions the reporter didn't ask.
    5. Look at graphs that mis-represent the data or give a false impression.
    6. Research the topic, particularly if it is outside your domain of knowledge. In fact, click on articles you ARE NOT interested in.
    7. Debate an article's point of view with a coworker. Learn from their point of view what questions you might ask to improve yourself.

    BONUS: Read comments and see what others caught that you missed after examining an article. I recommend slashdot for that as I think they tend to have better moderation than most.